A simple guide to loving yourself unconditionally
Imagine that you have a friend with whom you will spend your whole life. Whatever happens, they will be there for you. Now think: How would you treat this friend? How would you talk to them? Would you take time to nurture your relationship with love, support and kindness?
I am sure all of us would. We wouldn’t be unkind towards a person that accompanies us throughout our entire life. However, we often do it, to our own self.
The relationship with ourselves is the longest relationship we will ever have.
When you recognise this, you can start cultivating a loving and compassionate relationship with yourself.
Here are 3 ways to help you achieve this:
1. Engage in a soothing breathing exercise
Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably. Place your feet on the floor and straighten your back. Close your eyes and allow a gentle half-smile on your face. If your mind is racing, don’t worry about it. This is how brains naturally work. Simply notice any thoughts that come, and gently try to bring your attention back to the present moment.
Spend the next few moments finding a soothing breathing rhythm. You can count, if that helps, by breathing in for three seconds and breathing out for three seconds. You can slow your breath down even more, if you want to.
Studies have shown that slowing down our breath can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and create a soothing feeling (1). It can also improve our decision-making ability and promote caring, compassionate and supportive behaviour (2,3).
2. Practice the art of appreciation
I invite you to practice shifting your attention. We are often so used to the things we experience in our daily life, that we never take enough time to appreciate them. Even more so, we tend to focus on the negative stuff that is going on in our lives.
When you wake up tomorrow morning, instead of thinking how awful it is that you have to get out of bed, spend some time feeling grateful for being under that soft warm duvet and having had a good night’s sleep. When you prepare your breakfast in the morning, instead of thinking what a long day you have in front of you, take time to actually taste this lovely food you are eating. When was the last time you actually focused on its flavour, or smelled the scent of fresh-made coffee? Take time to notice the beautiful park you see on your way to work, or the kindness of a colleague towards you.
When we shift our attention, we can change our mood. If we start noticing more positive things around us, we start seeing the world through a different perspective.
3. Write a compassionate letter to yourself
Now, this one is the hardest one. But it can also be the most moving and touching. I invite you to write a letter to yourself. Experiment with the way you speak to yourself: If you are used to being self-critical, try talking to yourself as if you’re talking to someone you deeply care about. Try to convey a sense of warmth, understanding and empathy towards whatever difficulty you are going through. Recognise the effort you have put towards dealing with it. Then move on to finding some ways that might help you manage that problem.
It might take time until your feelings catch up to the words you are writing, so you don’t need to rush through it. If, at any point, you feel that this is difficult for you, don’t hesitate to stop the exercise. You can always come back to it when you are feeling calmer.
Take time to thank yourself, even for things that you usually take for granted. You could start like “Dear self, I know it is not your fault. You have really done everything that was in your power. I admire the strength you have shown and I know it has been really hard for you...”
Everyone’s journey towards self-compassion is different. For some it’s easy, while for others extremely hard. That’s okay. I invite you to experiment with those exercises and find what works for you. You might want to make some adjustments or discover your own ways to embark on your journey towards self-love.
Remember to practice those exercises more than once. Think of yourself as an athlete: Would it be enough to exercise just once?
Life can be like a rollercoaster. The same is true for the journey towards self-compassion. The only thing you can do is keep practising and enjoy the ride!
This article was inspired by Dr. Paul Gilbert’s book “The Compassionate Mind” and the Compassionate Mind Foundation’s Workshop “Introduction to Compassionate-Focused Therapy”, taught by Dr. Chris Irons and Dr. Shelley Kerr.
Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O'Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheffield, England), 13(4), 298–309. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.009817
De Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A., & Gidron, Y. (2019). How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 139, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011
Böckler, A., Tusche, A., Schmidt, P., & Singer, T. (2018). Distinct mental trainings differentially affect altruistically motivated, norm motivated, and self-reported prosocial behaviour. Scientific reports, 8(1), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-31813-8
Mariza is a Trainee Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at West London NHS Trust and a graduate of UCL MSc Clinical Mental Health Sciences. She is passionate about de-stigmatising mental health problems and increasing access to psychological therapies for all people. She loves dancing, spending time with friends and most of all, slowing down and enjoying the present moment.